Hun Sen and his wife Bunrany Hun Sen during a state visit by Herman Van Rompuy President of the European Council, and his wife Gertrude Van Rompuy in November 2012. Picture: President of the European Council original:flickr.com, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Whoever would like to see where Asia’s longest-serving prime minister lives and works must visit three places. His official residence, a bold and flashy structure resembling a modern Chinese-style administration building, is located at the former Boeng Kak Lake in Phnom Penh. A fellow party member recently had the lake filled, which required an enormous technical effort, in order to build a villa community. Around 3000 families had to be relocated from the banks.
Hun Sen’s second residence lies about five kilometers south, in the heart of the city at the Independence Monument, where a multi-storied villa with a roof of dark red tiles can be seen looming over a high, white wall. Over the years, numerous extensions have been added to the house. At the entrance are two soldiers, who sometimes close off the entire area behind red and white gates when they fear demonstrations against the landlord.
Hun Sen’s third home can be found a 20 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, on the Bassac River in the village of Ta Khmao. It resembles more of a bastion than a place of residence. Two radio towers are recognizable from a distance, a wide fence shields the property and Hun Sen’s private body guards are stationed a few hundred meters away. They have a reputation of being unconditionally committed to their commander.
And this is not likely to change soon: “Other developed countries change their leadership more often, but as for me, I want to follow China’s and Vietnam’s example,” declared the 60-year-old Hun Sen recently in the province of Kompong Speu. “I will wait until I am 74 years old before I leave politics, as they do in China.”
Shrinking majorities despite election fraud
Since 1985, in other words, for over 28 years, Hun Sen has ruled over the Land of the Khmer, and he wants to remain in office until the year 2027. He governs in the way of Asian feudal lords: Those that he finds sympathetic are rewarded with jobs, privileges, contracts, and land titles. Opponents such as journalists or environmental activists risk being targeted by him.
Every five years, however, Hun Sen must put himself before the will of the people. In the past, he was always ensured of a large majority. But in the recent elections on July 28th, he learned that a large part of Cambodian society no longer wish to continue doing as they have been: His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost 22 seats in the 123-member strong parliament, and thus with it, the important two-thirds majority.
The opposing Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Hun Sen’s archrival, Sam Rainsy, on the other hand, won 26 seats – enough to be able to block future parliamentary sessions since a quorum is required. “The Cambodians,” commented the liberal English-language Cambodia Daily, “braved the fear and chose hope.”
Young, first-time voters in particular voted for “change.” “Nearly 30 years of Hun Sen are enough. He and his friends have filled their pockets for long enough. They have not taken care of the people. We need ‘change,’” said a driver in Phnom Penh, expressing the mood of many young Cambodians.
The government spokesman Khieu Kanarith admitted that the election result is a “wake-up call” for the CPP. “We must do better.”
However, in the opinion of many election observers and citizens, the CPP cheated on a large scale. Pung Chhiv Kek, the long-time head of the human rights organization Licadho, and whose aides examined numerous polling stations on Election Day, said, “There was not one list on which ‘ghost voters’ did not appear or from which actual voters’ names did not disappear.”
In order to secure a majority for themselves again, the CPP issued a large number of false documents for people who are not even allowed to vote. And for the election, they ordered soldiers loyal to the CPP to districts where they feared that their majority was in danger of being lost. Kek says, “In Phnom Penh alone, there were 25,000 duplicate names. And elsewhere, voters who could not even speak Khmer appeared.”
The opposing Rescue Party declared that they had in reality won the election, and not the CPP. To their knowledge, 70 per cent of officials and soldiers alone had voted for them. This is, however, not verifiable; and the official end result had still not been announced by mid-August. The CPP-controlled electoral committee has required such a long time to count the ballots.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, therefore, demands that the result be checked by independent experts, including those from the UN: “There are too many irregularities.” At a mass rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, he shouted in a hoarse voice, “We are determined to not allow anyone to steal the Khmer’s success.” If the CPP does not give in, he has threatened mass demonstrations throughout the country. A few days after the election, rumors of a planned general strike were buzzing through the country.
Difficult situation for the opposition
But Rainsy’s and his people’s hands are bound. Even his supporters warn that marches and strikes are risky and could end in a bloodbath. It is a possibility though, for the opposition to boycott the parliament in perpetuity. But Hun Sen has already prepared an answer to that: Then CPP politicians or officials from smaller parties will just occupy the empty seats.
Ironically, the German ambassador, Wolfgang Moser, conveyed this threat to the opposition after a talk with the head of government. The diplomat from Berlin had to endure the accusation, which promptly came from Cambodian civil rights activists, of having made himself into a spokesman for the autocratic ruler.
A grand coalition would also be possible. The parliament would remain without an opposition in this case. However, according to longtime observers in Phnom Penh, allying oneself with Hun Sen would be a futile undertaking. Rainsy would not only gamble away support from his followers, but would also risk being pushed up against the wall by Hun Sen.
The prime minister has experience in that: In 1993, after he lost the first elections – which had been organized by the UN after the withdrawal of Vietnamese occupying forces – he forced the winner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his Funcinpec Party, into a coalition. He himself took over the Deputy Prime Minister position back then. Just four years later, after a coup, he chased the head of government out of the country. Ranariddh’s Funcinpec has meanwhile faded into obscurity. They didn’t even make it into the parliament in this election.
Thus the option remains, at best, for the opposition to win over a few influential positions and to try to convince Hun Sen into concessions, such as giving up the CPP’s dominance over the electoral committee.
The repression will remain
Hardly anyone considers it likely that Hun Sen will loosen his grip and compromise on political reform. Civil rights activists say that the ties between officials, the military and tycoons are now too tight and lucrative. The head of government controls all levels of society: The most important Khmer-language media, the police, army, bureaucracy, and the courts. “The justice system is a farce,” says the American lawyer, Evi Schüller from the NGO Licadho, and that it is incredible how unfair and unprofessional proceedings are in Cambodian courtrooms.
Since 1993, the year in which the first free elections took place in Cambodia, more than 300 people have died in politically motivated attacks, reports the US-based Human Rights Watch. The “involvement of top government officials, military, police, and intelligence officials in these acts” has been proven, but there has yet to be a “credible” investigation in any case, not to mention a conviction.
And furthermore, in the previous year, at least 35 civil rights activists, fighting against land grabbing and for better working conditions, have been allegedly “killed, injured, arbitrarily arrested, threatened with detention, or held in exile by CPP-led security forces.”
Even blackmail is part of daily political life. “If the people do not vote for the CPP, then we will no long provide …,” Hun Sen warned local inhabitants at the inauguration of a new road in March. “All projects … will be cancelled, even the irrigation of dried fields.”
“I don’t see the Hun Sen government reacting to the election with reforms,” says Carlyle Thayer, an Australian expert on Cambodia, in the Cambodia Daily. “They will continue land grabbing, they will not tackle corruption. Reforms will in any case be superficial because there are too many established interests.”
Hun Sen is himself among the richest men in Asia. In addition, he has already lifted numerous family members to influential positions; two of his sons are army generals. Rumor has it that he wants to emulate North Korea’s Kim clan and establish a family dynasty in Cambodia.
Many Cambodians are now wondering if the opposition would even be able to assume power after such a long reign by Hun Sen. “The CNRP staff is too limited, they don’t have enough capable people to handle the whole administration,” fears Lao Mong Hay, a veteran of the Cambodian civil rights.
Growth at a high price
And Hun Sen can claim to have made advances: Although Cambodians are still among the poorest people in the world, a part of the society is doing better. The economy by 7.2 percent last year, and the export of shoes and textiles to Europe, including Germany, is especially booming. In Phnom Penh, banks and residential buildings are popping up everywhere. Major highways, once riddled with potholes, are now paved. Many Thai, South Korean and Taiwanese factories have set up along the road leading to Sihanoukville. In the evening, the workers can be seen crowding into the cargo area of small trucks.
The growth is, however, “dearly paid for,” says Lao Mong Hay. “We have an enormous debt with the Chinese, we are plundering our rainforests, and we are recklessly exploiting our natural resources without regard to nature.” The people who are generating this growth are doing it for miserable wages: The minimum wage for textile workers is currently around US-Dollar75 a month and others earn even less – around two dollars a day. Therefore, Cambodians are doing worse than other workers in low-wage Asian countries.
These elections have again made it clear: One of the largest democracy experiments in Asia has failed. After the years of horror between 1975 and 1979, when the peasant rebellion under Pol Pot, also known as the Khmer Rouge, led to the death of around two million people, and after twelve years of Vietnamese occupation, the UN organized the first free elections in 1993. The hope was that Cambodia would, with the help of the international community, become a democratic Asian country.
But the test went awry early on, when the international community caved in as Hun Sen refused, despite having lost the election, to go into the opposition and instead clung onto power. They continued to pump billions of dollars into Cambodia – always with the hope that it will at some point, somehow work out.
Among the most influential players supporting Hun Sen today is the People’s Republic of China. After the election in July this year, the Beijing embassy in Phnom Penh delivered an especially fitting gift to the Cambodian military: 1,000 guns and 50,000 bullets – small presents preserve friendships.
According to Thilo Hoppe, the recent elections should prompt a closer look at Germany’s foreign policy towards Cambodia. He says that the German government should reconsider their cooperation and if possible, redirect cooperation aid from state institutions to civil society.
The Cambodian civil rights activists Ou Virak is however not convinced that things will change. “The international community,” he says, “has long since learned to live with Hun Sen.” International donors do see “the injustice, and they will complain about it, but they will not act.”